Not long ago, in a Starbucks in Evanston, I eavesdropped on a couple breaking up.
It couldn’t be helped. We were wedged together, the unhappy couple and me, in a corner of the coffeehouse, so tightly that we might as well have been commuters on a rush-hour train. I had a newspaper open and every once in a while would try to read a sentence or two but could never get far. My attention kept drifting to the love affair being terminated next to me.
I had thought I was familiar with all the major categories of breakup: The I’ve-Met-Someone-Else breakup, the You’ve-Never-Even-Introduced-Me-To-Your-Friends breakup, the I-Can’t-Be-With-Someone-Who-Thinks-Celine-Dion-Is-A-Great-Singer breakup. But this one was new to me. These two people seemed to be breaking up over scheduling problems.
“My life is just really crazy right now,” the young woman was telling her boyfriend. They were holding hands, and he was nodding sympathetically. She said her classes were harder than she thought they would be and her boss was asking her to put in more hours. She just didn’t have time for a relationship right now.
Her boyfriend was all empathy and understanding. He told the woman not to feel bad. In fact, he said, he, too, was feeling stressed. His busy season was approaching, and there would be a lot of travel, and who can be in love under that kind of pressure? I looked over quickly, and they were smiling, maybe because the impossibility of their relationship was the first thing they had been able to really agree on.
And so that was the end of it, as far as I know—another romance lost to the calculus of career. I’d like to tell you that the couple shared one last tender moment before their PDAs started beeping to remind them of their next appointments, but I lost sight of them when the man went outside to get a better signal on his cell phone. The woman just packed up her laptop and left. And what better place for it to end, really, but at Starbucks: the high church of the overscheduled, overcaffeinated, Type-A American.
Maybe you’ve been privy to a similar scene playing out in a coffeehouse or on a crosstown bus or at a college library workstation near you. The federal government doesn’t keep statistics on breakups, as far as I can tell, but there is this fact: Since the 1950s, men and women have been waiting longer and longer before getting married. The median marriage age has climbed from 22 to 27½ years old for men; and from 21 to 26 for women. All over America, people just like the couple I sat next to in Starbucks are not getting married. At least not yet.
What are they doing in the meantime? A lot of them are going to graduate school, piling up degrees and tending to their careers. Consider this confluence of statistical trends. As marriage age climbed, so did the number of graduate degrees earned and the average number of hours spent on the job. Over the last 30 years, the number of people earning bachelor’s degrees has increased dramatically, as have the numbers completing master’s and doctoral degrees. Once they enter the workforce, those people have helped turn the United States into what Boston College’s Juliet Schor calls a “workaholic nation.” Singles represent 44 percent of the American labor force. The average number of hours Americans spend at work rose nearly 12 percent between 1971 and 2000. Americans are, quite literally, putting their education and career first. Love and marriage can, and does, wait.
That represents a significant development in the way we think about work and love, but it’s one that’s been largely overshadowed. For at least 15 years now, the focus has been on how work-related pressures shape marriages and family life. In 1989, Arlie Hochschild’s groundbreaking book The Second Shift explored how dual-career households navigate the tensions caused by spending more and more time at work and less and less at home. More recently, an Atlantic Monthly essay by journalist Caitlin Flanagan noted how working parents depend on child-care options to sustain their careers, effectively creating a new kind of “serfdom” of overworked and underpaid child-care pros that, Flanagan argued, allowed working women to escape the domestic roles to which they had once been limited.
But work and career concerns aren’t just changing family and married life. They’re also shaping the intimate lives of people like the couple I encountered in that Starbucks in Evanston: highly educated, highly motivated young people who are not married and who may not be all that interested in marrying anytime soon. Having spent their 20s building impressive resumes—a couple of master’s degrees here, a prize fellowship there, a job on Wall Street, but not until after those two years in Teach for America—they end up applying their career acumen to their relationships. Not surprisingly, those relationships—messy, irrational and unpredictable —don’t always go as smoothly as their careers.
“In a relationship, you have to sacrifice,” is how one Notre Dame student explained it to me. “And I don’t want to sacrifice. I’ve got all these goals and plans, and I don’t want to limit myself by being with another person.”
If love and work are at war, love is losing badly.
* * *
I came late to the battle between love and work, because for the longest time I did my best to avoid both. In the years right after college, I would have had trouble telling you which notion seemed more stifling to me—getting married or starting a career. I’ve since come around on marriage, but work—the daily grind of meetings, memos and cubicles—still looks to me like something to be avoided.
Almost everyone likes to bitch about work, so it’s a bit of a surprise to find out how much time we spend there. Americans average just under 2,000 hours at work each year, one of the highest totals in the world. In the last decade, middle-class married couples added 135 hours of work to their schedule each year. And they might be considered slackers compared to most young single people I know, who tend to be still sending me emails from work when I’m trying to pack my 4-year-old son off to bed.
Why all this work? Well, most of us feel, if not squeezed, at least a little economically anxious. And we suspect that if we don’t put in the extra hours it won’t take the boss long to find someone who will. But there’s something else, too, something illuminated most convincingly by Hochschild in The Time Bind. One reviewer called it our nation’s “dirty little secret”: We like going to work. One of the reasons we spend so much time there, Hochschild suggests, is that we like it there more than being home with the family. She showed that even when companies offered flex-time and other innovative solutions to the work-home conflict, working parents often neglected to take advantage of them. They chose to put in the full day at the office, and often more.
It’s really not hard to understand. Work at least offers a clear job description and goals—a chance to use the problem-solving and communication skills we spent all those years polishing in school. Home, whatever its comforts and satisfactions, is seldom so rational, seldom so readily gamed. If you do a good job as an account executive, your boss gives you a glowing review and a raise. If you do a good job as a parent, your kids might call you cruel and unfair.
As if the effects of all those years of education and all those extra hours at work have seeped into our very hearts, a creeping professionalism has begun to manifest itself in even our most intimate relationships. This has been true since at least the Reagan years, which is about when an old girlfriend informed me that our relationship was no longer “meeting her expectations.” It was the first time I had ever heard the jargon of Human Resources deployed in quite that way. Now that sort of pragmatic approach to romance is almost commonplace. When marriages go bad, couples are sent to a counselor who gives them homework assignments: Spend five minutes each night complimenting each other, and have sex on Tuesdays. It’s hard to believe that such an approach would work, but even if it did, one would be left with a marriage sapped of any semblance of surprise or mystery.
But the resort to therapy is of a piece with our emotional professionalism. We have been trained well. We don’t just try things: We study them; we master them. In her book The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion writes of the impulse, when faced with the loss of a loved one, to turn to the Internet and to books, to “read, learn, work it up, go to the literature.” She recognizes that she shares “a habit of mind usually credited to the very successful”: a surpassing faith in the power of information and the ability to navigate crises by dint of management skills.
Love and marriage comes in for this treatment, too. Marriage classes, intimacy retreats and romance workshops have become a common feature of middle-class coupling. And that’s to say nothing of the big business of advice books, like The Purpose-Driven Marriage and The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. It sometimes seems we’re all dutifully studying up and staying current on the latest literature, as if pursing advanced degrees in intimacy.
The ultimate goal of all this self-improvement, for the overwhelming majority of us, is a successful marriage. Fully 90 percent of Americans over 35 have married—though, of course, not all have remained married. And, as David Klein, an associate professor of sociology at Notre Dame, pointed out to me, the University’s basilica is booked solid every summer with Domer weddings. In fact, he says, “A ring by spring,” that seemingly anachronistic battle cry of the eager-to-wed undergraduate, is still in currency in some residence halls.
Klein teaches a seminar on dating and courtship, and he says that the urge to marry is the one reliable constant in student attitudes. “Almost all my students say they expect to marry.”
What has changed is the path they take to get to the altar. According to Klein, classroom discussions reveal a greater orientation toward career goals than ever: The first big decision for his students is not who they will spend their lives with but where they will find jobs. “Students say the first thing they have to decide is where to live, and that decision is based on where the job opportunities are,” Klein says. “They’re hesitant to consider marrying while in graduate school or while getting started in their careers. They’re interested in having things all lined up. Find a job, get financial stability, then start thinking about a family.”
Indeed, the highest achievers often end up having the hardest time sustaining much of an emotional commitment. It’s their very mobility, the variety of options open to them, that can create dilemmas. Recruited by employers from coast to coast and spending much of their energy angling to get into the best graduate programs, they don’t have much incentive to settle into a stable domesticity. And even if they did, they may find themselves in academic exile in Ann Arbor or Austin while their significant other is climbing the ladder in Boston or San Jose.
My last time in South Bend, I met a Notre Dame graduate student who told me how troubled she was about her current love interest. The problem wasn’t the guy; she had nothing but good things to say about him. But he was in Boston, in another graduate program. They would like to be together, but it just wasn’t possible now. The more they talked about making a commitment to each other— which, to be practical about it, meant one or the other giving up the plan he or she was operating on—the more she felt like she was turning her back on professional options she hadn’t yet explored. The result: She felt pushed to reach conclusions about the relationship before she was ready to do so.
“Relationships can’t just naturally evolve under these kinds of circumstances,” she explained. “If I follow my career goals, I may not be near him geographically. I love him and he loves me, but I don’t want to be the kind of woman who gives up her personal goals for the sake of a relationship. I just can’t imagine a future that revolves around a relationship instead of my goals.”
Most of the 20-somethings I spoke to for this article mentioned similar cost-benefit analyses. Like their older and already married counterparts, they’re weighing the professional against the personal, the practical against the emotional. For many of them, their careers are taking precedence, at least for the short term. (Things may change once children enter the picture. A much-hyped recent New York Times account tells of recently graduated female Ivy Leaguers opting out of the career path and choosing to stay home and raise their children.)
If the cost-benefit approach sounds surprisingly calculating and rational, Klein welcomes that rationality as a refreshing change. “It wasn’t 10 years ago that I was regularly questioning their rationality,” he says, laughing. “They wanted it all. They wanted to be brain surgeons and to have eight kids, everything. But I think more and more they recognize that they need to make choices.”
“It’s a zero-sum game,” is how Notre Dame sociologist Andrew Weigert describes the kind of economic decision-making that shapes relationships. “Your gain is my loss. To maximize careers, you rationalize everything, including your family.”
Those choices can be hard ones to make, but that’s surely better than having no options at all. The problem with any critique of careerism is that it is too easily misread as a reactionary defense of “family values” or a plain insistence that women belong at home. To allow one kind word on behalf of careerism, it has at least given more people more choices about what kind of life they wish to live and given them the tools needed to live it.
* * *
Our increasingly pragmatic approach to dating, marriage and other forms of intimacy has not escaped the notice of academic theorists. Since at least the 1970s, some academics have been applying rational choice economic theory to modern relationships. The resulting vision is of a new kind of commodified, corporatized and commercialized intimacy. Social economist Gary Becker and other proponents of exchange theory suggest that marriage is best understood as a choice made by rational consumers. “Persons marry,” Becker has written, “when the utility expected from the marriage exceeds the utility expected from remaining single.”
That’s not exactly sweet talk, but for exchange theorists the poetry of romance is nothing but a kind of marketing campaign. Ultimately, potential partners are measured by the commodities and resources they can offer to the marriage market: social standing, good looks, money, to name a few.
There is, clearly, not much room in exchange theory for the more irrational and self-effacing aspects of love. But neither is there in other, more recently developed schools of thought.
The sociobiological perspective, for example, emphasizes evolutionary factors in choosing partners. Driven by our genes’ urge to survive and replicate, our relationships become arenas in which we compete for control and power. Our weapons are deception, cunning and will. In this scenario, power males are driven to succeed in their careers so that they can select from a wider field of trophy wives, while cunning females scheme to catch a dominant male. For all its cartoonish simplicity, the sociobiological mode will be readily understood by those young people who have spent most of their lives working to gain admittance to, and thrive in, the best schools, the best companies, the best clubs. For that matter, it will make sense to anyone who regularly watches reality TV.
Close relationship theory, on the other hand, is less interested in marriage and procreation than in the ways relationships provide personal meaning for those involved. The emphasis is on serial coupling or, to use the term introduced by Kenneth Gergen, “microwave relationships”—partnerings designed to be heated up quickly, consumed, then discarded. In close relationship theory, romance is episodic and rapidly changing, and from each successive relationship the individual emerges reinvented. This scenario is not such a long stretch from the professional world that most of us recognize
—a world of rapid change and insecurity, with employers dumping workers and employees jilting bosses just as quickly as lovers change partners. The beauty part is that once we’ve moved on, each old job—or each old relationship—can be written off as an opportunity for personal growth. A learning experience.
The connection between economics and intimacy is hardly a new one. In Hands and Hearts: A History of Courtship in America, historian Ellen Rothman quotes a late-18th century American man named Silas Felton who is so ashamed of his meager financial resources that he cannot bring himself to propose marriage to the woman he loves. Felton, in his reluctance to wed until he has his financial house in order, may have been a man ahead of his time. Or is that we have turned back the clock to an era when marriage was more likely to be a frank business transaction than a love match? Is the dowry about to make a comeback?
Of course, if you’re looking for evidence of the growing professionalization of love, you cannot overlook the workplace romance. In survey after survey, about half of the people asked own up to having dated, slept with or otherwise coupled with colleagues at work. In a 2005 survey by the career consultancy the Vault, 58 percent of respondents admitted to workplace romances, up from 48 percent in 2003. Another 22 percent said they had met their spouse or significant other on the job. We’ve all heard the cautionary tales about the perils of emotional entanglements on the job; few of us appear to be paying much attention.
In a Kansas City Star survey, singles bars and workplaces finished tied for second place on the list of top places to meet mates; only fix-ups from friends rated higher. Even employers are growing more comfortable with workplace romances, relaxing some of the rules that long restricted them.
There is an obvious explanation for the boom in on-the-job love. As we spend more and more hours at work, our professional lives are increasingly seeping into the other spheres of our existence
—the parts that we used to quaintly call our personal lives. A friend of mine, a veteran of a high-powered Chicago accounting firm that demanded long hours and total commitment of its young hires, says that one of the consequences of such a corporate culture is rampant workplace romance. “Our jobs were our lives. We hardly knew anybody on the outside,” he remembers. “So we dated the people we worked with.”
“We do it because work has replaced family as our main society,” another Notre Dame alum, a New York magazine editor, told me. “We used to have ethnicity or religion or neighborhood in common. Now it’s work and career that drives us. Where else will we meet people? And co-workers already understand how tough our job is. They’re built-in empathizers.”
It’s no longer just a matter of possibly having to relocate for the sake of your career. Now your career path helps determine who you’ll marry, when you’ll marry and if you’ll marry.
Even our vocabulary betrays our coolly professional attitude toward intimacy. The word relationship has become the all-purpose descriptor for most kinds of coupling, having replaced such antique terms as fling, flirtation, romance and, God forbid, love affair. We’re squeamish about these old words, maybe because they fail to do justice to our hypereducated, utilitarian stance. Relationship is a more rational word, but also tamer and less exciting. Love has always suggested a kind of unguarded madness. A relationship, well, that’s something that can be managed.
We may not have much use for a word like romance anymore. When I used it in passing in my conversation with that grad student in South Bend, she visibly flinched. She said she didn’t like using that word to describe her relationship.
The last I heard, she and her long-distance boyfriend were still seeing each other once a month or so. It took some doing to find the time in their schedules to get together. Both work hard, both are looking ahead and both have a lot of commitments. They’re both serious long-distance runners, as well, with several marathons apiece to their credit. Their long training runs take up a lot of time, too.
They don’t train together, though. The woman told me she prefers to run alone.
Andrew Santella (www.andrewsantella.com) has written for The New York Times Book Review, Slate, GQ and other publications.